How worried do you need to be about Omicron?: a (hopefully somewhat) level-headed overview of what we know and don’t know about the new variant so far. Lost Weekend: Customers “in really good spirits” after being snowed-in at UK pub.
How worried do you need to be about Omicron?
At the end of last week, the emergence of a new COVID 19 variant of concern in South Africa sent countries scrambling to reinstate travel bans. Omicron’s high number of mutations (at least 30) has scientists and public health officials spooked. Crucially, at least 10 of the observed mutations affect the all-important spike protein. Scientists say these spike protein mutations could make omicron better at evading a person’s antibodies from prior infections and vaccinations.
But for the moment, these are merely speculations. A variant’s number and type of mutations is not always a good predictor of how it will perform in the real world. The panic over the beta variant around this time last year is a case in point.
The evidence that we have at the moment is worrisome but also anecdotal. And while some of the anecdotes are concerning, others may offer some room for cautious optimism. Epidemiologists say it will take some weeks to form a more complete picture of omicron’s transmissibility, antibody resistance, and the severity of infection. But here’s what we know so far.
The best anecdotal test case we have for omicron currently is in South Africa, where the variant was first identified and where most of the cases have been recorded. Local healthcare providers sounded the alarm when COVID infections spiked suddenly after a weeks-long lull. These infections also presented with an atypical symptom profile, which led scientists to discover the new variant.
While this sounds worrying, it’s important to note that South Africa’s vaccination rate is exceedingly low, at around 20%. South Africa has been able to limit infections by means of repeated (and often draconian) lockdowns, as well as aggressive contact tracing. The fact that omicron was able to gain a foothold despite these precautions is concerning. But South Africa’s case does not provide a good indication of how easily or rapidly omicron will spread among more highly-vaccinated populations. That information will become clearer over the following weeks, but for now, there simply isn’t enough to make a judgment.
As stated previously, South Africa’s vaccination rates are low, and those infected are likely to be unvaccinated. There’s also no data available yet on what percentage of omicron patients had prior exposure to COVID-19. So while the spike protein mutations are worrisome, there’s still no concrete indication that the vaccines will be less effective in protecting against it. The beta variant also had numerous spike protein mutations, but initial fears of the beta variant spreading beyond control ultimately proved unfounded. The delta variant also gave rise to many breakthrough infections among vaccinated people, but these infections were largely mild.
So again, time will tell how resistant omicron is to natural or vaccine antibodies, and how worried we should be about that resistance.
Severity of infection
According to Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who first spotted the omicron variant, symptoms have so far been relatively mild. And this is among a population of people who are most likely unvaccinated.
With the eye of optimism, this is where there might be some good news. Viruses typically start out as something more dangerous before eventually evolving into something that is more of a mild nuisance. Even rhinoviruses (what we call the common cold) were likely much more deadly at some point in our species’ history.
Throughout 2020 and much of 2021, unchecked congregating, travel, and refusal by many to take precautions like masking have slowed this process of evolution. That’s because we gave the virus no incentive to become less virulent, since it always had access to new and susceptible hosts. Vaccination programs and social distancing in some places may finally be nudging the virus towards becoming less dangerous so that it has a greater chance of spreading to a new host before killing or incapacitating its current host.
But before we get too rosy, Dr. Coetzee acknowledged that most of the omicron patients she saw were relatively young and healthy people. We won’t know for some weeks what danger omicron poses to older or otherwise health-compromised people.
What we should do now
So now we know that the full picture of omicron’s impact will take time to emerge. But that doesn’t mean you should wait around to find out. By the time you hear about the first omicron variant case in your area, the chances are it’s already been in your neighborhood for weeks and either you or someone you love is already at risk. If you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated now. If you’re vaccinated but over 60 or have other health complications, get a booster.
Whatever your vaccination status, mask up, limit unnecessary contact, and wash your hands. We all know the drill and we’re all sick of it. But until COVID finally goes the way of the common cold, it will be a case of lather, rinse, repeat .
Lost weekend: Customers “in really good spirits” after being snowed-in at UK pub
On Friday evening, a blizzard trapped 61 revelers in Britain’s highest altitude pub. The Tan Hill Inn in the Yorkshire Dales (Northern England) sits at 1,732 feet above sea level. Today marked the guests’ third day in snowbound captivity.
Fortunately, the pub’s manager Nicola Townsend is accustomed to dealing with impromptu “lock-ins” due to inclement weather. Townsend kept guests “in really good spirits” by organizing movie screenings, a quiz night and karaoke to keep their stranded customers entertained. The members of an Oasis cover band, called Noasis, were also stranded after playing a scheduled gig on Friday night and have also been providing musical relief.
The guests have also been doing their part, helping staff who’ve been working long hours. Townsend says “They’ve formed quite a friendship … like a big family is the best way I can describe it”.
Roads were finally cleared today, making it safe for the guests to hit the road. But according to Townsend, “One lady actually said ‘I don’t want to leave’”. There’s also talk about organizing a reunion lock-in next year.
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